Two hours before Coldplay are due on stage in Denver, a crack team of Feng Shui masters have been working around the clock to make Coldplay’s on-tour “family area” a haven of zen security. Or, at any rate, that’s how it seems. Low pastel lights, a selection of fine wines and heavy wooden bowls with artfully scattered fruit adorn the place. If it weren’t all being dismantled and recreated for tomorrow’s show in Salt Lake City, you would want to stay here forever. Amid the impeccably serene ambience, Coldplay’s “other three” – guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – are a triumvirate of calm. The only thing out of place here is the manic energy of Chris Martin.
Could it be that Coldplay’s frontman is nervous? His last two British interviews were notable primarily for the fact that Martin walked out of both of them without warning. And even though further enquiries concerning Martin’s marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow or their children Apple (4) and Moses (2) would almost certainly make it three in a row, Martin seems more interested in exploring the semantics of what constitutes a walk-out. “Hey man, isn’t it a bit harsh to say I walked out?” he says, before looking to Buckland for back-up. “If you come back two minutes later [as he did when The Observer asked him about Paltrow] is that a walk-out? Strictly speaking?” But the singer doesn’t get quite the response he’s after. “I think it sort of is,” says the guitarist – to which a chastened Martin says, “Okay. Fine. I’ll take it.”
In fact, he couldn’t be more different to the prickly singer who, in May, revealed that he felt like he was about to be “fed to the lions”. When he says he’s homesick, I ask him if there’s anything he can get in Britain but not America. The words barely leave my mouth before a response leaves his. “Laid,” he beams. “Oh, and maybe a Toffee Crisp.” Is there any truth in recent tabloid reports that Coldplay have two years left in them? Not really, says Martin – although the singer stops short of an outright denial. “I’ve got some strange superstition about trying to write as many songs as possible… before I reach 33. And I’m 31 now. It’s more about imposing deadlines on myself.”
If, in last six months, Tigger has rediscovered his bounce, it might have something to do with the reception that finally met Coldplay’s fourth album when it appeared. In six months, Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends has made them the most indisputably popular band on the planet, averaging just over one million sales a month – in the process, making it the most downloaded paid-for album of all time and propelling them to number one in 36 countries.
If critics were slower to acknowledge the extent of Coldplay’s achievement, that might have been because Viva La Vida… was a reinvention that – on first inspection – seemed to stretch credulity. Enlisting the services of Brian Eno to help rebuild their sound “from the bottom up”, using woozy violas, dulcimers and Latin rhythms seemingly reconfigured to ape the rolling stock of Intercity trains, the end result seemed purged of almost all the things that Coldplay’s detractors found annoying about them: the palliative vagueness of the lyrics, the sense that Buckland, Berryman and Champion were there to tastefully fill out the space around Martin’s melodies. Even Martin himself had found a reptilian new baritone on Yes.
Working on the premise that late is better than never, I confess to Martin that since meting out a lukewarm three stars to Viva La Vida, it’s become my favourite record of 2008. In recent months, it’s been the album I’ve listened to when I go out on my morning run. Martin, who used to run, but gave it up because it conflicted with his yoga, places his blindingly pristine trainers on the table. “Where do you live? Crouch End?” he asks, for reasons that will later become clear. “It’s funny you should say that, because running is sort of integral to the record. We will not make an album over 47 minutes and do you know why? It’s because I was running one day, and listening to an album, and after that time: (a) I got tired; and (b) I was like, ‘F*** this’ – and so I started walking. And when you let yourself start walking, you know it’s all over. Did you know Guy ran the London Marathon this year?” Beside him, the 30 year-old bassist, father to a two year-old girl, seems happy to let Martin speak on his behalf. “He came in the top 2000… an accurate reflection of our musical standing at this moment. Right now, I would say that we’re definitely one of the world’s top 2000 British soft rock music acts.”
Martin’s droll whimsy notwithstanding, the fact is that nothing quite prepares you for just how pan-generationally adored the band, who met as freshers at UCL in 1996, are over here. America loves Coldplay, even if, at times, it struggles to understand their humour. Martin talks about the point in the show at which he introduces a different song by saying that Barack Obama’s would-be nemesis Joe the plumber wrote it. “Every night I say it, and every night, no-one laughs.” On Election Night, after they played a show in Atlanta, Martin says he shed a tear when Obama said, “I dedicate this night to the love of my life” – “but then”, adds the singer, “I cry at the X-Factor. I cry especially at the X-Factor. If you don’t cry at the X-Factor, you’re not human.”
No prizes, then, for guessing what Martin will be doing in the hour before Coldplay play the first show of their UK tour in Sheffield on Saturday evening. If the presidential election gave Coldplay a first-hand opportunity to witness America become “a saner place”, the drip-feed of information from back home suggests that the opposite is true of a country where the two longest-running recent news stories revolved around John Sargeant’s bad dancing and, ahem, “Sachsgate”: “We were supposed to appear on Jonathan Ross when we got back this week, and it’s cancelled. Then someone mentioned something about Manuel. Can you explain it to me?” I set about trying to do just that. When I get to the bit about Russell Brand telling Andrew Sachs that he had sex with his granddaughter, Martin grimaces. “He said what? Well, to be fair, we’ve done a lot of interviews at the BBC and it does feel like a bunker in there. It never connects with you that people out there might actually be listening. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get into scenarios where you’re egging each other on, oblivious to the outside world.”
Where Coldplay are concerned, shutting out the outside world has been far more difficult task to accomplish. . Featuring archetypal signifiers of the Coldplay “sound”, Clocks and The Scientist, 2002’s A Rush Of Blood The Head was the album that saw the group go global. But along the way they lost their “fifth member.” Martin’s old schoolfriend Phil Harvey – former manager, “impartial ear” and buffer between band and world – left to study in Australia. As sessions for Coldplay’s third album X And Y rumbled on throughout 2004, tensions within the band were exacerbated by EMI’s keenness to report to their shareholders that the album was progressing smoothly. When their interference further put the brakes on the sessions, news broke that the album had been delayed – which in turn sent EMI’s share prices falling. “They mismanaged the situation badly,” recalls Champion, Martin’s former teammate in the UCL hockey team. “Needless to say, we were cross.”
Guy Berryman remembers staff at the label coming to the studio and attempting to make suggestions about possible singles. “We felt so much pressure to be the band who everyone predicted we would be,” says Berryman, “We were cornered into this situation and felt like we had to make music that would fill stadiums.”
If, for a time, Martin thought he had the art of writing era-defining tunes licked, you could hardly blame him. If you had written a debut album like Parachutes, which came generously endowed with pretty, plaintive meditations like Yellow, Trouble and Don’t Panic, you’d probably be pretty pleased with yourself. With all the certitude of a true ingénue, an interview with Q Magazine, back in 2002, saw him itemizing the “three constants” necessary to stay creative. Seven years on, it seems like a good time to remind him about them.
“What did I say?” he asks.
The first, I remind him, is a turbulent relationship with women.
The second is a fear that of imminent death
Then, finally, a preoccupation with hair loss.
In 2008, only the preoccupation with death – which rears its head on much of Viva La Vida – seems to be an issue. “I appear to have stopped receding,” trumpets Martin, to the mock-chagrin of his thinning guitarist. And surely the turbulent relationship with women thing no longer applies? “Doesn’t it?” he says, sounding as much like Marlon Brando as the son of a Devon caravan retailer can sound, “How do you know? You don’t know me!”
If your twenties are spent establishing formulae to help you to understand the world, the ensuing years are surely about accepting the limitations of those formulae. In pop, far from facilitating genius, formulae eventually turn you into your own tribute band. Wasn’t this the problem faced by Coldplay with X And Y, so audible in the clinically pristine hits such as Fix You and Talk? Even the title seems to allude to it. Buckland, 31, thinks so. “When you start off, you feel like you’ve discovered those rules [for the first time]. Once you’ve used them again though, you realize it’s a dead end.” As a U2 fan, Martin won’t have been oblivious to Brian Eno’s pedigree when it comes to helping bands to rethink the way they create. According to the producer, Martin and Paltrow found themselves having lunch with Eno. After fruitless hinting from Martin, Eno says it was apparently Paltrow, on Martin’s behalf, who asked Eno to produce the record. What became apparent to Eno was that, for such a huge band, Coldplay were unused to playing in the same studio together. “That was the first thing that Brian [Eno] got them to do,” says one source close to Coldplay, “get them sounding like a group again.” By all accounts, the return of Harvey to the fold also steadied the ship.
Relieved of the burden to initiate songs, Martin came to a whole new appreciation of Coldplay’s strengths. “Regardless of who’s on the cover of magazines, I’m absolutely under no illusions. If this band is about anything, it’s about what the four of us do together. In the same room.”
More than any other member of Coldplay, it makes sense to hear Martin exalting what happens when the four of them get together in the same room. Increasingly for him, Coldplay are a safe place, a place where the paraphernalia of celebrity holds no currency. More than anything he says, this is what makes it hard to believe those Coldplay “split” rumours. And whilst he wouldn’t be so crass as to write songs about his “situation”, it’s sometimes hard not to glimpse the paranoias and preoccupations of the reluctant celebrity rising to the top. Not least in the characters Martin chooses to inhabit. At the very end of Abba’s collective lifespan, Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote The Visitors – a song from the perspective of a Russian dissident slowly going mad in his room, waiting to be found out by Soviet security forces. Why, you wondered, was Ulvaeus identifying with these sorts of characters? On Viva La Vida, Martin writes from the perspective of a deposed dictator reduced to “sweep[ing] the streets I used to rule.” On Viva La Vida’s title track, Martin writes from the perspective of a deposed dictator reduced to “sweep[ing] the streets I used to own.” Discuss.
“Not that I would think us worthy of such analysis because I don’t,” he begins, “but for what it’s worth, I see that song as being really positive. It’s more like a turning-over-a-new-leaf kind of song. Like I fucked up a bit, and I don’t mind being punished, but I can get redemption in the end.”
But isn’t that the point? The only fantasy left for the man with everything is one in which he loses it all. Has he ever seen the appeal of doing a Reginald Perrin – like John Darwin, the British teacher who, in 2001, faked his own death in a supposed canoe accident? Martin furrows his brow, apparently deep in thought. “There’s been a few times on the Serpentine where I’ve thought, ‘I’m gonna ditch this pedalo and run away to Brighton. Does that count?”
On Cemeteries of London, you can’t help wondering if his description of London’s deserted streets at night – we’ll go wandering through the arches where the witches are” – is a byproduct of his profile. There aren’t many places a well-known couple can visit, untroubled by flashbulbs and fans.
“I can do most things without being bothered. If I’m with… We can’t do anything as a family, but if you put on a hat and sneak over the back wall, you can do anything. But the point is you’re right. And that song came from the middle of last year, in the middle of the night, after recording, I couldn’t sleep and I went down to St Paul’s and I was walking around all that area, and it was raining. It’s so beautiful down there, and there’s no-one there.”
You wonder, at times, if Alan McGee ever feels embarrassed by his 2001 verdict that Coldplay made “bedwetters’ music”. Martin’s reaction at the time was nothing if not savvy. “I would like to shake Alan McGee by the hand,” he said, “It’s like Rocky IV. He’s trying to hurt me, so I go away and train like a monkey.” McGee’s comments seemed more than a little ironic in June when his chum Noel Gallagher – who had questioned the wisdom of having Jay-Z headline Glastonbury – was instantly turned into the village idiot, on account of the rap superstar’s masterful appropriation of Wonderwall. Of all the musicians to emerge from Britain in the last decade, it’s polite, public-school educated Chris Martin – first-class graduate in Ancient World Studies – that America’s most famous drug-dealer turned hip-hop tycoon wants to hang out with. Rappers even bicker over who discovered him first. On his 2007’s album Graduation, Kanye West complained that – even though Jay-Z collaborated with Martin on the previous year’s Beach Chair – it was West who initially had the idea of using Martin on a song. On the new expanded version of Viva La Vida, Jay-Z returns the favour by rapping on a new version of Lost. Next summer the two co-headline Wembley Stadium.
Can Martin see why his friendship with Jay-Z is so fascinating to the outside world? “Yes, I can. But there’s nothing that strange about it. What do we chat about? The same stuff as anyone. We chat about how Robert Kilroy-Silk is doing on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!” I suggest that the fascination has something to do with the perceived bling/“bedwetter” interface. Their friendship that suggests there’s a bit of sensitive indie kid in Jay-Z and a little bit of gangsta in Coldplay. “Right. I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that he’s like a turkey with stuffing in the middle, but Coldplay are more like a hot dog – with the bread on the outside. It’s fun to be friends with different people. You should call the editor of [hip-hop magazine] The Source. I’m sure you’d be great friends.”
A knock on the door. Having gradually allowed the sofa to all but absorb his nervous energy, a relaxed Martin is told that if he wants to eat before the show, he needs to do so now. “We’ve been playing the same set for a while and it really feels like it’s flying,” says Champion, a man with a stare which, when his three children are older, will surely have them tidying their toys in three seconds flat. However, by the time the show has climaxed with the nightly but still breathtaking release of a million paper butterflies, it’s notable for two exceptions. For the first time in weeks, there is no allusion to Joe The Plumber. The second deviation is something I only learn about later, when a sweat-soaked Martin – still in his quasi-French revolutionary “work” clothes – returns backstage. “Did you get it?!” he asks me. Did I get what? “The lyric in Cemeteries of London! I changed it to “…we go running through Crouch End’!”
Sure enough, the next day, I check on YouTube and the moment has been immortalized. Right now though, I don’t know whether to thank him or apologise. I wasn’t expecting it, I explain, so it didn’t register. But Martin has moved on. “Tonight was also the first time I ripped my trousers. I aspire to ripping my trousers. It shows I’m enjoying myself.”
It seems he really is. Celebrity continues to be a word he continues to hate for its occasional application to what he does. As for fame, though – even Chris Martin will acknowledge that fame has its perks. “Last year, in an attempt to impress my family I tried to cook some fish and peas, but I forgot to turn on the vent. And the thing about our fire alarm is that it’s connected to the fire station. So the fire engine comes around, and I was in a panic. I said, ‘Guys I’m sorry. There’s no fire.’ Then, two months later, I said, ‘Right – I’m gonna have another crack at this’ – and the same thing happened. Just as I’m running outside, the fire engine pulls up and the fireman says, ‘Have you been cooking again, Chris?’ So then I had to take a walk because I was a bit shaky. As it happened, the fire engine was going the same way, and they said, ‘Do you want a lift?’”
“There are good days and not so good days, you know? But, the thing is…” Long pause. “I got to have a ride in a fire engine. How cool is that?”